Friday, May 20, 2016


Continuing the mental shifts necessary to provide functional, family-capacity-building early intervention, here I discuss the fact that caregivers are teaching their children already. So what is the role of early intervention (birth-6)?

We are building on the foundation caregivers (parents and teachers) have already established with the child. As Vygotsky pointed out early in the 20th century, children learn from other people who do things at a little more advanced level than they do (i.e., in the zone of proximal development). Obviously, adults are way more advanced, but, when they're teaching children, they elicit behaviors that are minor advancements to the child's existing behaviors. If they're too advanced, the child doesn't learn them well. If they're not advanced enough, no learning occurs although the child might get in some practice. Similarly, when we work with adults, our best efforts should involve ideas for tweaking what the adults are already doing. This is for a different reason from why we work only in the child's ZPD. With adults, it's more about homeostasis: Adults tend to develop their ecocultural niches that are not terribly malleable.

As the research of Bruder and Dunst has shown, learning opportunities abound in families' lives. Some families make the most of these opportunities and others are possibly unaware of their impact on their children's learning and development. In research conducted through the NICHD, one of the best predictors of children's outcomes at age 16 years was the quality of mothering they children received when they were infants. This was also true for those infants in full-time child care. Parenting makes a difference.

As early interventionists, therefore, we don't go into homes with the assumption that we're going to train parents to teach their children. Rather, we know they are already teaching their children, and we're helping them figure out (a) why the child is or isn't doing something in the course of everyday routines, (b) what strategies can be added to the routines (i.e.,  things parents can do in their existing routines) to help the child participate more meaningfully or competently, and (c) whether or not those strategies worked. These are essentially the three stages of Sue Sheridan's conjoint behavioral consultation. Early intervention is indeed a consultative process--the good, collaborative consultation, not the bad, expert consultation.

When we realize that families have already created the "teaching space" in their routines, our job is easier, more relevant, and more acceptable to families. Furthermore, we're expanding the family's capacity to teach their children by reinforcing it and building upon it. When an early interventionist creates new routines (e.g., heaven forbid, play time on the floor with select toys), it doesn't acknowledge the family's existing ecocultural niche. It sends the opposite messages: either you're not teaching your child or what you're doing isn't good enough.

Families' belief systems about their parenting role vis à vis teaching the child or their sense of self-efficacy in that role can be a factor in what we do in early intervention, as the following table shows:

Parents who don’t intentionally teach their child very much
Parents who intentionally teach their child a lot
Early intervention works directly with the child
Parents are reinforced in this belief; we need professionals to teach the child
Parents might believe what they do is not enough
Early intervention builds the family’s capacity
Parents become more aware of the teaching they do and increase the amount
Parents’ self-efficacy and confidence are increased, thus sustaining and even expanding their teaching